Adolph Kiefer, 1936 Olympic swimming gold medalist and the oldest living U.S. Olympic champion, has died at the age of 98.
Kiefer was a legendary backstroker, losing just twice in some 2,000 career races. He became the first man to break the one-minute mark in the 100-yard backstroke when he was just 16 years old, clocking a time of 59.8 seconds. He competed at the Olympic Games Berlin 1936 when he was 17, the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic Team, and won the 100-meter backstroke, setting a new Olympic record in each round of competition. The record he set in the final would stand for 20 years.
“When we got to Germany, there were swastikas all over the place. Millions of them,” Kiefer told TeamUSA.org in 2014. “I remember the Germans drove us out to where they were making all their guns. They wanted everyone to know that Germany was big and strong. Anyway, one day Hitler came to the village where we were staying to take some pictures, and I was pretty well known over there because I was breaking records. We got introduced, through an interpreter of course. I’ve always said, I should’ve thrown him in the pool and drowned him. It would’ve saved everyone a lot of trouble.”
During his career, Kiefer would go on to break 23 records in all, including every national and world backstroke record.
There were no Olympics held in 1940 or 1944 due to World War II, and Kiefer served in the U.S. Navy. Reaching the rank of Lieutenant, he was charged with teaching the other men to swim. He introduced the "victory backstroke" as a means of doing so, which eventually led him to create an intensive learn-to-swim program in which sailors were required to receive 21 hours of water survival training. He was then transferred to the Physical Instructor's School in Bainbridge, Maryland, where he oversaw the recruitment and training of over 13,000 naval swimming instructors. Those instructors would go on to teach more than two million recruits how to swim and survive a sinking ship.
Swimming and saving lives would remain a central focus of Kiefer's life even after the war ended. He established the company Adolf Kiefer & Associates in Chicago to serve the swimming and aquatic industries, developing products like non-turbulent racing lane lines and nylon racing suits. He worked extensively with USA Swimming as an official supplier to the team, with presidents on their Council for Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition as an advocate for swimming, and with Swim Across America, a non-profit that raises money for cancer research.
“More than anything, I like to design things that help save lives,” Kiefer said. “The World Health Organization says we lose half a million people every year to drowning. It’s as big a problem as heart attacks. When you teach a child to swim, you give them safety and the pleasure of activity for the rest of their life."
In his later years, Kiefer suffered from neuropathy (nerve damage that causes weakness, numbness and pain) in his legs and hands, keeping him confined to a wheelchair except for his daily swims; he was able to walk in chest-deep water. He said that water is what kept him alive, even after the death of Joyce, his wife of 73 years, in 2015.
“There will never be another like Adolph Kiefer,” says Bruce Wigo, President of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. “Not only was he a great swimmer and businessman, but he was a great human being, husband and father whose memory will live on as a model and inspiration for future generations of swimmers and non-swimmers alike.”“The USOC is deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Adolph Kiefer and offers our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends," said USOC CEO Scott Blackmun. "As we reflect on his accomplishments as an Olympic champion, we are also reminded of the indelible impact he left on generations of swimmers. His contributions as a teacher and innovator helped save countless lives and changed the sport of swimming for the better. His passion for sport and safety was unmatched and his presence will be missed.”